U.S. Allies Look on in Dismay While U.S. Rivals Rejoice
Trump’s failure to convene a G-7 meeting is only the latest blow to America’s crumbling prestige in the face of nationwide unrest.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week declined an invitation to join U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington for a star-crossed meeting of the G-7, and then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson rebuffed Trump’s plans to bring Russia back into the group, it underscored how profoundly U.S. allies and partners have soured on American leadership amid a mishandled pandemic and a violent crackdown on protesters.
Merkel’s rebuff, like similar chidings from other German and European officials aghast at the scenes of White House-encouraged violence they’ve watched over the last week, is just the latest indicator that U.S. allies are fed up with an America they see drifting closer to authoritarianism and away from the core values Washington had always preached.
U.S. rivals, meanwhile, are rejoicing. “It’s kind of a feast for the Chinese Communist Party, and for the Kremlin, and all those other strongmen that are really insecure,” said Sascha Lohmann, an expert on U.S. domestic and foreign policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. China has gleefully used U.S. racial tensions, protests, and violent crackdowns to push back against U.S. criticism. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman offered sympathy to Americans standing up to “state oppression.” Even Venezuela is piling on.
“In terms of how this plays out, it’s kind of a devastating blow to the image of the United States,” Lohmann added.
All in all, the scenes broadcast around the world over the past week of runaway police brutality, tear-gassed photo ops, unchecked assaults on reporters, and U.S. soldiers and paramilitary units taking over the streets of Washington and barricading the White House add up to a huge blow to the moral credibility of the United States. For decades, American diplomats were able to more or less convincingly cajole other countries to respect ideas like the freedom of the press and the right to peaceful protests. Now, such messages, coming on the heels of U.S. abdication of the very multilateral order it helped build, increasingly fall on deaf ears.
“What happened over the last week is perhaps a catalyst in this loss of confidence in the United States, and its traditional role as the ‘beacon of hope’ and all those shiny concepts,” Lohmann said. For many tempted to dismiss the Trump years as an aberration that doesn’t reflect the real America, the latest unraveling is opening some eyes, he said.
“There’s a reality check going on among European audiences that, for much of the last decade, we were living with a highly idealized picture of the United States,” he said.
Of course, there’s a certain blind spot in Europe’s reaction to the latest breakdown in American society. While a European Union commissioner claimed that such scenes of police brutality that prompted the ongoing protests couldn’t happen in Europe, they already have. In just the past year, Spanish security forces have cracked down hard on pro-independence Catalans, and French riot police ferociously thumped yellow vest protests.
But, without a doubt, the past week has clearly opened the United States up to charges of hypocrisy that countries such as Iran, China, and Russia—frequent targets of U.S. moral scoldings—have eagerly seized upon. That makes it that much harder for U.S. diplomats to condemn China’s crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong or call out Iranian excesses in battling its own protesters, or criticize Hungary’s steady erosion of the rule of law, or Myanmar’s documented brutality in battling its own minority populations. The United States has spent decades vocally condemning China’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, which happened 31 years ago Thursday. Yet this week, a leading Republican senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, called for U.S. troops to be unleashed on U.S. protesters in the name of restoring “law and order,” neatly echoing Beijing’s own line.
Granted, for many in Germany and across Europe, it’s hardly just the last week that has dashed illusions. Many Trump administration actions, from attacking NATO and levying tariffs on close allies to pulling out of important international organizations like the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, already undermined European confidence in U.S. leadership.
In France, the American carnage over the past week is just the culmination of years of disappointment with the United States. In 2003, France and the United States had an acrimonious split over the Iraq War, and relations were further soured by U.S. abuses during its anti-terrorism campaigns. While hopes were high during the Barack Obama years, U.S. inaction in Syria particularly disappointed French policymakers, who felt let down in a core interest of theirs. And then came Trump.
“All this comes on the heels of many years when the United States acted strangely in our eyes—Bush, Obama, and Trump,” said Laurence Nardon, a North America specialist at the French Institute of International Relations. “I think we in Europe have been disappointed in America for a long time.”
Clearly, this isn’t the first time that the United States’ standing in the eyes of the world has been under threat due to disorder at home. Nativist immigration policies in the first quarter of the 20th century undermined U.S. influence, especially in Asia. Racial divisions have always provided fodder for enemies, as they did during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and China took advantage of what they saw as U.S. hypocrisy to chip away at American soft power. The assassinations, riots, and anti-war protests of 1968 tarnished America’s ability to act as the beacon on the hill in a global ideological struggle. The great financial crisis of 2008-2009 weakened the U.S. ability to counter the appeal of Chinese-style state capitalism.
But one big difference now is an apparent vacuum of national leadership that could rise above the divisions and offer the world a different vision of America, said Robert Zoellick, a former senior U.S. diplomat in several Republican administrations.
“Under Trump, the administration has made no effort to offer leadership, whether practical, systemic, or for a higher purpose. It’s all transactional. And personal to him. So there is no cushion or resilience for the administration,” he said, contrasting Trump’s messages over the last week with the conciliatory and uplifting words offered by former presidents such as George W. Bush.
“So much depends on how the United States, not just the government, responds—just as it had to do with Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, burning cities, and various economic downturns and crises.”
“The United States has the capacity to learn and listen to its ‘better angels,’” Zoellick said. “So time will tell.”
While Trump has hunkered down in the White House bunker and fueled divisions, former presidents such as Obama, Bush, and Jimmy Carter have all released statements seeking to bridge the divide and reunite the country. Especially with Obama’s former vice president, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, leading in most polls ahead of the November election, observers overseas have clung to those messages as much as current administration rhetoric, Lohmann noted.
But looking ahead, perhaps the biggest legacy of the Trump years for observers in Europe is the sudden unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy, which for decades stopped at the water’s edge, and which included support for free trade, multilateral institutions, democracy, and human rights. Trump’s ability to undo much of Obama’s legacy in short order—followed, perhaps, by a Democratic president who will reverse most of Trump’s policies—has sown confusion and uncertainty in allied capitals.
“We can’t really trust America, because America’s word is only as good as the president who says it, and then the next one may say something entirely different,” said Nardon, the France-based North America expert.
Beyond the protests and the crackdowns and the erosion of America’s moral standing, that loss of trust in what America really stands for has left Europeans wary.
“There’s little chance to go back to the consensus that prevailed during the last 70 years,” Lohmann said.
He likened what’s happening now to the traditional flip-flop of U.S. policy on providing federal funding for nongovernmental organizations that advocate or enable abortion. Since 1984, every Republican administration systematically enforces the “global gag rule” or “Mexico City policy,” which bars such funding, while every Democratic administration immediately overturns it. That same whiplash, Lohmann suggested, is in store for the whole suite of U.S. foreign policy.
“It’s like the Mexico City policy will be going global.”
Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP